LEICESTER: Leicester City captain Wes Morgan hoisted the Premier League trophy aloft to a burst of pyrotechnics on Saturday as one of sport's most captivating stories reached its giddy climax.
Following a 3-1 win over Everton in their final home game, the 5,000-1 outsiders, whose exploits have captivated fans around the world, got their hands on the prized trophy at an exultant King Power Stadium.
After the players had been called up one by one to a hastily constructed on-pitch plinth — the biggest cheers reserved for star players Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante — Morgan was handed the trophy by competition winner Steve Worthy, a lifelong Leicester fan.
“It is fantastic,” said Leicester's inspirational 64-year-old manager Claudio Ranieri, who was at Morgan's side as the Jamaica international centre-back raised the trophy above his head.
“The people have been unbelievable. Thank you to them. They push behind us all season.
“I was very, very, concentrated on being calm and of course I am very, very happy. I think it was an amazing moment for me. I am not the youngest!
“To lift the trophy is something special. You are champion of the Premier League. That is something special for me, of course, because I won some cups in Spain and Italy, but to be champion here is fantastic.”
Morgan said: “It was an unbelievable feeling to finally get my hands on the trophy. I had to hold back the tears. I held them back and lifted it up. It was the best feeling in the world.”
The 25 kg trophy was decorated with ribbons of blue, for Leicester, and yellow, representing the royal house of Thailand, home country of club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
Vichai and his fellow club directors joined the players on a lap of honour as Leicester's fans, who saw their team narrowly avoid relegation last season, launched into a chorus of “Leicester till I die!”
It was followed by “Barcelona, we're coming for you!”, in a nod to next season's hotly anticipated Champions League campaign.
Vardy scored a brace and missed a penalty in the victory over Everton, which took Ranieri's men 10 points clear of second-place Tottenham Hotspur ahead of the London club's game with Southampton on Sunday.
Banned for Leicester's two previous games, Vardy struck in each half, with Welsh midfielder Andy King also on target.
Prior to kick-off, the 32,140 sell-out crowd was treated to a performance by renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who fulfilled a recent promise to his compatriot Ranieri by singing 'Nessun Dorma' and 'Time to Say Goodbye'.
Bocelli removed his jacket to reveal a blue Leicester shirt as he sang, prompting roars of approval from the flag-waving home support.
Leicester play their final game of the season next Sunday at outgoing champions Chelsea, Ranieri's former club, before an open-top bus parade in Leicester on May 16.
Tottenham's 2-2 draw at Chelsea last Monday, which gave Leicester the title, sparked a week of celebrations in the city and fans arrived at the stadium several hours before kick-off on Saturday to drink in the moment.
Supporters formed a snake-like queue for team jerseys stamped with a gold and white “Premier League Champions 2015-16” sleeve badge, while souvenir scarves, flags and programmes were eagerly snapped up from stalls around the ground.
Bright sunshine gave way to heavy spring downpours as kick-off approached, but the atmosphere inside the stadium remained fervent.
Everton's players gave their opponents a guard of honour as they emerged onto the pitch and it took Leicester less than five minutes to go ahead as Vardy converted King's lofted cross for his 23rd goal of the campaign.
King made it 2-0 in the 33rd minute, sweeping home right-footed after Mahrez's jinking run into the box was halted by Leighton Baines.
Vardy added a third 20 minutes after the interval, drilling a penalty past Joel Robles after he had been fouled by Matthew Pennington, but then blazed his second spot-kick into the stand, prompting a rueful smile.
Kevin Mirallas replied late on for Roberto Martinez's Everton, who slipped one place to 12th in the table. Vardy now has 24 goals for the campaign, one behind Tottenham's Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot.
“It is an unbelievable feeling for everyone involved,” Vardy, who was playing non-league football for Fleetwood Town four years ago, told Sky Sports.
“I can't describe it. I think someone must have put a spell on me to make it happen.”